Media Highlights

Measuring and Expanding Educational Opportunity

by Lindsay Torrico   •  

Equal opportunity and social mobility have long defined America. A core value of our nation is that where you start in life should not determine how high you climb.

Today, there is growing evidence that opportunity is slipping out of reach for an increasing number of Americans. Wages have stalled for middle and working families and poverty rates remain stubbornly high. Recent data from the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll finds that a majority (68 percent) of respondents believe that the opportunity to receive a quality education, work toward financial stability and have access to health care is no longer a guarantee for the average American child.

United Way wants to change that reality, and to improve every child’s chance for success in school, work and life.That’s why we are partnering with Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan, multi-sector national campaign comprised of 300 organizations working together to expand economic opportunity and social mobility, and why we are encouraging the use of the 2013 Opportunity Index to promote this goal.

The Opportunity Index, developed by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, is the nation’s first web-based tool designed to provide a snapshot of what opportunity looks like at the state and county levels. The Index measures key economic, educational and civic factors that can expand or restrict opportunity. A key factor is on-time high school graduation, which plays a leading role in advancing opportunity and upward mobility.

United Way has set an ambitious goal to cut the number of high school dropouts nationwide in half by 2018. This year, 1.2 million high school seniors will not graduate. About 6,000 students will drop out today. The numbers are even grimmer for young people of color. We have to end this waste of talent and potential.

We know that in order to get a job that pays family-sustaining wages in today’s economy, Americans need higher levels of education and training than ever before. This starts with earning a high school diploma and continuing on to some form of  post-secondary training or education. It is therefore critical that our young people embark on meaningful educational and career pathways when they graduate, so they, too, can have their shot at the American Dream.

We cannot do it alone. Improving education requires all of us — public, private and nonprofit sectors — to work together in new ways. And it requires a clear-eyed view of the problem and its roots. The fact is, high school dropouts are more than 12 years in the making.

  • Disadvantaged children start school at least 2 years behind in pre-reading skills.
  • For every 50 children who don’t learn to read in kindergarten, 44 will still be struggling in 3rd grade.
  • Children without grade-level reading skills by 3rd grade are unlikely to graduate.  New research shows grades and absenteeism rates by 3rd grade can predict dropouts with 90% accuracy.

A critical first step is measuring educational opportunity across the country and having a clear picture of how nation is expanding or restricting upward mobility in different communities. Next, we need to take action to strengthen each rung on the ladder of opportunity for all Americans. Effective strategies that connect communities to their schools include: parent involvement; literacy volunteers in the classroom; mentors for disadvantaged students; and business leaders engaged in early childhood advocacy.

Visit to see where your state ranks. Enter in your zip code to see what score your county earns. Compare your score with other regions, and check whether your area improved in 2013. It takes everyone in the community working together to create a brighter future. Give. Advocate. Volunteer. Change cannot happen without you. 

Lindsay Torrico

United Way Worldwide

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